‘Waterfall’: A different Asian-American romance

We’ve all had enough of American man in Asia romance stories. “Waterfall” turns that tired old genre around. A Thai man dreams of living in America, and falls in love with an American woman married to another Thai man.  This takes place pre-World War II so there’s some commentary that is both anti-American and anti-Japanese. That might be a bitter cup of tea to swallow, but there’s a lot of truth in this musical which is a welcome point of view change.

The musical is based on a Thai novel, “Behind the Painting” by Sriburapha and has been adapted for American audiences. Lyrics and book are by Tony Award-winner Richard Maltby Jr. (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Miss Saigon”) and music by Oscar-winner and two-time Tony Award nominee David Shire). Director Tak Viravan is a leading figure in Thailand’s theater scene and he directed a Thai version of this show “Behind the Painting.”

The musical begin with a prologue in Bangkok after the war. It is 1945 and the main character, Noppon (Bie Sukrit) is hanging a colorful painting of a waterfall on the wall. His wife (Kimberly Immanuel) comments about it–the painting itself isn’t that good, and Noppon flashes back to 1932 when Thailand is still called Siam and Noppon was totally in love with all things American, but “the place that never changes has changed” and Noppon soon ends up in Tokyo on a special study scholarship. In Tokyo, he meets the elderly Ambassador from Siam Chao Khun Atikarn (Thom Sesma) to Japan, but more importantly he meets the 30-something American blonde wife of the Ambassador, Katherine (Emily Padgett).

Noppon falls in love with Katherine and her husband unwisely is too busy to take her around sightseeing and asks Noppon to be her guide. Katherine as a young girl have been to Thailand and her father had known Chao Khun Atikarn. Unbeknownst to the young Katherine, Chao Khun Atikarn had become infatuated with her. Later, when Katherine’s mother and father had died, leaving her in terrible debt, the now widowed Atikarn saved her and out of gratitude, Katherine married him.

The painting has a significance because at the very beginning Noppon tells us, “She danced with me and that one moment was a work of art.”

Yet this is an Asian point of view and Katherine becomes the figure of tragedy, perhaps justly so because of her own youthful indiscretions. Noppon’s indicretions doesn’t keep him from success and a good marriage. There’s a bit of comedy and a show of the changing times through Katherine’s servant Nuan (J. Elaine Marcos).  Besides Katherine, Noppon has a Japanese American friend, Kumiko (Lisa Helmi Johanson) to provide a contrasting viewpoint (“America Will Break Your Heart).

Padgett has a lovely, elegant voice that contrasts Sukrit’s more pop-inflected vocalizations. Yet that also sets her apart from Sukrit’s Noppon, making their poignant romance seem doomed. The contrast between Thailand and Japan is shown through dance, but the realization of Japan, particularly Kyoto doesn’t establish the contrast between Japan and Thailand.

In Thailand, women wear pants. In Japan, the women are in kimonos in Kyoto, and yet they walk as if they are in pants. Furthermore one key moment, when Katherine appears at an official function in a kimono, it isn’t clear if her faux pas is dressing in a kimono (the very sight being offensive to the Japanese official) or being in the wrong type of kimono. The Kyoto shopkeeper should have known and even Noppon should have realized it, but the Kyoto scene doesn’t show a differentiation at all between married women and unmarried women.

It’s also hard to hear the name Noppon and not think of the old Japanese world for Japan: Nippon. I don’t think that’s a mistake.

“Waterfall” is a pleasant musical, one that doesn’t have any catchy tunes, but it is a welcome view from Southeast Asia of Japan and the United States. The cast does a good job and there’s real chemistry between the boyishly charming Sukrit and cool Padgett.

“Waterfall” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7  p.m. $30-$87. For more information, call (626) 356-7529 or visit http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

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